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May 23, 2008

Nineteen Years Later, The Record Is Still Skipping

Yesterday was a birthday, of sorts; it was the birthday of The Grumpy Gamer, the blog site belonging to Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame) for his "often incoherent and bitter ramblings about the Game Industry." Four years ago yesterday he posted his first blog, a reprint of an article he wrote in 1989 which, he says, became the foundation for the design of Monkey Island. And at the time of its reprint, in 2004, Gilbert made the proclamation that "Adventure Games are officially dead."

What I find fascinating is that the article, titled "Why Adventure Games Suck (And What We Can Do About It)", discusses so many of the ongoing issues surrounding storytelling in games that people like me continue to blather about nearly two decades later. This is going all the way back to 1989. Infocom still (barely) existed, and Interplay's Neuromancer was the adventure game of the year.

Apparently, the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

Rather than just reproducing the whole article verbatim, I thought it would be more interesting to highlight some of the important passages that I think remain relevant and continue to be debated to this day.

The element that brings adventure games to life for me is the stories around which they are woven. When done right, it is a form of storytelling that can be engrossing in a way that only interaction can bring. The key here is "done right", which it seldom is.

We continue to talk about the great advantages that interaction can provide, yet it still seems like we don't have a good handle on what those advantages really are, or how to best take advantage of them. And I'm not so sure, all these years later, that we could yet define what "done right" actually is. We might be able to point at a few good examples, but I suppose it's just another one of those things like porn: it's tough to define it, but you know it when you see it.

They are interactive, but they are not movies...Movies came from stage plays, but the references are long lost and movies have come into their own. The same thing needs to happen to story games.

Nearly twenty years later...but have story-based games really separated themselves from other media like movies? We still hear this same point being made over and over again. The same thing does need to happen to story games. When will it?

In a story game, the player is given the freedom to explore the story. But the player doesn’t always do what the designer intended, and this causes problems. It is hard to create a cohesive plot when you have no idea what part of the story the player will trip over next. This problem calls for a special kind of storytelling, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of this art form.

I, like many others, have made this point in the past -- and of course, back when I did, I'm sure I thought I was all too clever for bringing it up. We continue to gnash our teeth over how to deal with player choice and freedom within a traditionally linear environment. But it's fascinating that, nearly two decades ago, we were just beginning to scratch the surface. If I hadn't read this piece, I probably would have described the current state of affairs the same way. We're still scratching away, and it's tough to know if we're any deeper than we were back in 1989.

Nothing is more frustrating than wandering around wondering what you should be doing and if what you have been doing is going to get you anywhere.

This is clearly true, and as true today as it was back then. I bring it up only because this was one of the criticisms I saw repeatedly for the text version of Vespers, at least at the very beginning of the game. It takes a little while before the seminal event takes place in the game, and some players griped about not knowing what they were supposed to be doing from the start. It's one of those things I'm a little nervous about for the 3D game. I'll have to see what the initial feedback is like, when the time comes.

It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.

This is another one of the main complaints about Vespers -- death is a part of the game, and I'm not sure how clever you need to be to avoid it completely. I do agree that death or danger should be allowable, as long as it can be avoided through careful thought and consideration. We'll see how it goes over in the 3D game.

One of the most important keys to drama is timing. Anyone who has designed a story game knows that the player rarely does anything at the right time or in the right order...Give the player some slack when doing time-based puzzles.

Couple of interesting points here. First, he's right about drama and timing -- that's got to be one of the most difficult things to try and incorporate into a story game. It probably relates back to his point about players tending to do things other than what the designer intended, and that we just need to figure out how to deal with storytelling in this kind of interactive medium. But second, it's also interesting to consider the point about time-based puzzles, particularly since the IF version of Vespers is inherently turn-based, while the 3D game is more real-time (although actually it's more of a hybrid). Vespers does include what would be considered time-based puzzles, but that has been one of the challenges when adapting the game to 3D: how to deal with time-based puzzles that were originally turn-based, but are now essentially real-time. I still don't know how well those puzzles will be implemented and received.

The object of these games is to have fun. Figure out what the player is trying to do. If it is what the game wants, then help the player along and let it happen. The most common place this fails is in playing a meta-game called “second guess the parser.” If there is an object on the screen that looks like a box, but the parser is waiting for it to be called a mailbox, the player is going to spend a lot of time trying to get the game to do a task that should be transparent...On one occasion, I don’t know how much time I spent trying to tie a string on the end of a stick. I finally gave up, not knowing if I was wording the sentence wrong or if it was not part of the design. As it turned out, I was wording it wrong.

I point this out only because I think this is one area where IF has really advanced. I think most authors -- at least who have done more than just dabbled in IF -- have taken this gripe to heart and in my experience it's more of the exception rather than the rule to come upon a "guess the verb" or "guess the noun" problem. I think this is something that has kept a certain number of people away from IF for a long time, but I think those people would be pleasantly surprised at how infrequent this issue has become.

If I could have my way, I’d design games that were meant to be played in four to five hours. The games would be of the same scope that I currently design, I’d just remove the silly time-wasting puzzles and take the player for an intense ride. The experience they would leave with would be much more entertaining and a lot less frustrating. The games would still be challenging, but not at the expense of the players patience.

I find it interesting that he brought this up almost twenty years ago, but the shorter-style game really wasn't given much consideration (at least in the mainstream) until more recently -- Penny Arcade's new episodic game being one example, and the casual game market being another. That said, the IF Comp has existed for many years now, and those games are intended to be completed in two hours or less (Vespers being one of them) and I think players have come to really appreciate that. I think Vespers game play is probably more like 3-4 hours, but what Gilbert describes is exactly what I am aiming for with this game: a short but intense ride that avoids a lot of the typical trudge work in games.

If any type of game is going to bridge the gap between games and storytelling, it is most likely going to be adventure games. They will become less puzzle solving and more story telling, it is the blueprint the future will be made from. The thing we cannot forget is that we are here to entertain, and for most people, entertainment does not consist of nights and weekends filled with frustration.

Well, he's certainly right about all of that. I'm just wondering when that beautiful future will finally arrive!


Anonymous said...

Ron Gilbert (not Dave).

Rubes said...

Nice...getting my adventure game guys mixed up now. Thanks for noting that.